High Times for Lawrence Weiner
November 15 - February 10, 2008
I first came upon Lawrence Weiner’s striking, sans-serif text-pieces when I wandered into his “Displacement” project at the old West 22nd Street Dia building in 1992. One foot through the door to the sprawling, industrial, third-floor exhibition space and I was standing in Weiner’s work, and on it—the entire expanse of the concrete floor having been covered in enamel paint bearing bold, cryptic phrases and slick, extremely basic diagrams. The entire space simultaneously called to mind a high-design, multi-level parking garage, a cinderblock high school gymnasium and the outside of a monumental intercontinental tanker. In one area near the door, oriented towards the viewer, there was a grid on the floor that suggested a friendly Minimalist hopscotch game. Painted squares of color, with large numbers inside them were accompanied by a series of stenciled text lines extending out to the right. Put together, the piece read, “1 FOR THE MONEY, 2 FOR THE SHOW, 3 TO GET READY & 4 TO GO.” Unencumbered, I did a quick figure-8 through the gallery space, leaving a few sneaker marks on the ampersand sign, and I was back out on 22nd Street, perplexed if strangely unmoved. Was it because the work was so hygienic-seeming? I honestly didn’t know what to think; and yet I liked the fact that I wasn’t too bogged down in what not to think either. Like a session musician at the famous Sun Studio doing a red-hot first take of “Blue Suede Shoes,” I had actually boogie-woogied intuitively though the show, across its thin plastic surface, unaware of the work’s deep hook.
A few weeks later I found myself jogging around my neighborhood track, studying the clean, precise lines and graphic elements that were designed into the rubberized material below my feet. A large, stenciled number 2 came and went, and suddenly Weiner’s Dia exhibition popped back into my head, rendering the “2” less a primary number and more a Stuart Davis-like abstraction. When I looked up again, the entire public facility, with all of its clear, generically-lettered signage, struck me as part of the Lawrence Weiner arsenal. It was as if the artist had cleverly slipped his own cryptic whispers into the uniform, institutional graphics that were directing my day-to-day life. Weiner’s Constructivist, utopian premise had gotten through to me after all—along with the work’s easy, pop-song appeal and the artist’s own legitimately subversive sense of humor.
Four years later, I was employed as a guard at Dia and writing poems on the job when a colleague told me that Weiner and his wife Alice were looking for an assistant to do some simple household tasks at their West Village home/studio. I took the weekly gig and entered the world of Lawrence Weiner. While he and his administrative assistant worked in a downstairs studio by day, I would busy myself with a variety of errands and small jobs upstairs, mostly for Alice. My first job for Weiner himself involved the purchase of a fifty-pound bag of enriched soil from a nearby garden supply store, which Weiner used to pot some “herbs” in his backyard garden while a weird solo Ginger Baker album played softly on the stereo. Another job was to install a bell above the front door, so that it would jingle whenever someone entered or left the house. Unfortunately, my faulty installation almost left John Baldessari unconscious when the bell fell off its mount during a visit the following week. My favorite job was simply painting the walls with a fresh coat of Benjamin Moore semi-gloss Decorators White, paying special attention around the early Sol LeWitt four-quadrant pencil drawing on the living room wall.
As I painted, I would catch glimpses of Weiner working in his studio, and it began to dawn on me that the line, “1 FOR THE MONEY” was in fact confessional. For despite Weiner’s glamorous, Beat-chic persona, his days were spent just like mine, hustling from nine to five to come up with the cash and momentum necessary for survival. There was a serious work ethic: Drawings had to be executed and rolled into old whisky bottle rounds; proposals had to get out the door; the mail was eagerly monitored for incoming business of any kind. Where most poets—and I have to confess I wanted to identify with Weiner as a writer—find security in academic day jobs, this wordsmith was really attempting to survive off his work in the reality of the art world.
Meanwhile Alice was working upstairs on a book project, culling relevant works from across the decades. Transparency after transparency, wall after wall, city after city… some were large-scale urban projects, some multiples or editions, some actions executed with materials, others simply proposed by words. Thus, the history was being written upstairs, while downstairs the history was being made, as the artist struggled to bring language beyond casual conversation, attempting to allow it to exist in concrete (or pre-concrete) terms.
I came to look forward to the moments when Weiner would take a break from his work, roll a smoke and come over to examine an area of fresh paint on the wall. He generally had an off-the-cuff tale or a mind-boggling series of non-sequiturs to share. One day, as a tiny ember smoldered away in his grey, Old Testament beard, he told me a story about some old rugby teammates who had sensed his artistic intellect and then conspired to protect his head from any really hard knocks. A sweet, unstudied story about a luminous, poetic mind and some big-hearted buddies, it probably stuck with the listener much longer than the storyteller.
When Weiner studied my work, I recognized a real respect for the job, if not a sort of rugby-team camaraderie. It was the first time, within the art context, that I was made to feel as though a menial, survival-level job meant anything at all. When I heard that Weiner’s father had run an old Bronx candy store, it all made sense. Despite the fact that he and Alice had lived for 18 years aboard a houseboat with no electricity in Amsterdam, there was something so American, something so New York-centric about the sole proprietorship, the entrepreneurial roots, of Weiner’s artistic practice.
At the end of the day, there was often an invitation to go out for a pint of Guinness at the corner bar, after which he might return home for a visit with another artist friend. Generally, I didn’t leave empty-handed. Along with a check for my work, I was gifted several books from his stockpile, various announcements, posters, an odd CD of Weiner songs interpreted as country music, a 1991 pin reading “STARS DON’T STAND STILL IN THE SKY (FOR ANYBODY)” and even, one day, an anemic spider plant from the kitchen. In this way, I became intimate with the range of multiples and collaborative works in Weiner’s oeuvre. What was more, each time I left the house, I went through the door free of pain. Never mad at the Man. Weiner’s world really was a utopia.
So that was how I met the sage behind the sans serif. But when all the jobs where done and the money ran out, I stopped working at Weiner’s, and life went on. Over the years, I’ve had continued exposure to his installations up at Marian Goodman and in other shows around town—of particular note, Bobby Rainwater’s galvanizing exhibition of books and editions, Learn to Read Art, at The New York Public Library in 1995—but I have never expected more from it. As I saw it, the work existed not to amaze or seduce me, but to sustain itself alongside me.
So when I arrived at the Whitney Museum’s current Weiner retrospective in early November, I was expecting the usual asceticism, where the work comes in honed, hyper-articulate rations. Instead, I was struck by the playfulness with which the title of the exhibition, “AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE,” running along the roofline of the building, animated Marcel Breuer’s severe façade. Once inside, I was shocked by a new first impression that came from seeing so many Weiner works in full bloom at once. With 40 years of works jam-packing the museum walls in a symphony of simultaneity, I experienced a perfect medley of greatest hits that blurred each work’s former autonomy. One room features a giant, 20 × 40-foot wall festooned with posters from across Weiner’s career, a testament to the artist’s true skill as a graphic designer. Another wall is covered, salon-style, with works arranged around a nautical theme. Reading the wall allows the previously hermetic works to band together in, for Weiner, a fairly dense, lyrical passage. “WATER UNDER A BRIDGE” (1986) shared space with “A GLACIER VANDALIZED” (1969), “ILLUMINATED BY THE LIGHTS OF TWO SHIPS PASSING IN THE NIGHT” (1998), “A TURBULENCE INDUCED WITHIN A BODY OF WATER” (1969), “ONE FLOURESCEIN SEA MARKER POURED INTO THE SEA” (1968), among others. Glancing out the window at Madison Avenue, I realized that not only was I looking out the portal directly below “AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE,” but also that Weiner’s reference had transformed the façade’s single window into the eye of a Cyclops, and I was standing inside its head. But it was Weiner’s head, teeming with ideas—and words.
The show, courageously curated by the Whitney’s Donna De Salvo and Ann Goldstein of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, is an overwhelming expression that calls to mind nothing less than Walt Whitman’s paradigm-shifting Leaves of Grass, a single song crafted “AS LONG AS IT LASTS” (1992-93) and stretching “AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE” (2007).
While the works in this exuberant reunion might at first seem scrubbed, their sassiness and grittiness eventually shines through. Vintage works like “Propeller Painting” (1963) remind the viewer that Weiner had a sumptuous touch before he gave up painting. But when you look at the works made from new vinyl press-on type, which the artist now uses instead of stencils and paint, you are paradoxically grateful that he did give up his tactile practice. In the text works, there is a combination of warm and cool that allows you to experience the work from near and far, close but not too close. I particularly felt this way when studying the 1991-95 piece that reads, “THE WEIGHT OF IT ALL / THE LENGTH OF IT ALL / THE BREADTH OF IT ALL / THE SOUND OF IT ALL / THE SMELL OF IT ALL.” Icy cold on the surface, this deceptively hot verse could be wailed by Little Jimmy Scott.
In general, I found myself ignoring dates at the Whitney, thinking instead in the present tense as I circulated through the fan-like space, an impressive floor plan designed by Weiner. Each time I circled, I’d come back to a few works in particular: “A 36” X 36” REMOVAL TO THE LATHING OR SUPPORT WALL OF PLASTER OR WALLBOARD FROM A WALL,” Weiner’s iconic 1969 removal piece, his Malevichian first step; “TWO MINUTES OF SPRAY PAINT DIRECTLY UPON THE FLOOR FROM A STANDARD AEROSOL CAN (1968), which comes this time in hot pink, equipped with its own museum guard; and a spray paint stenciled wall piece from 1983, “A BIT OF MATTER AND A LITTLE BIT MORE.” All modest old troupers that retain a certain punky rebelliousness.
Conceptual artist Christopher Williams once told me a story, perhaps a tall tale, about Joseph Kosuth’s competitive claim to have given up painting one year before Weiner did. Of course the mythical issue of who stopped “making” paintings first is entirely beside the point, as Weiner’s mode has proven not to be reductive, but expansive, elastic, malleable. He flirts with all types. Nevertheless, his credo clearly insists that the work’s physical realization, beyond its textual/verbal articulation, is merely optional. This concept, which allows the work to be thought of as a kit with any number of potential manifestations or architectural sites, also allows the work to reside in a suspended state between existence and non-existence, lending it the amazing quality of having no exact time or space, either in the past or in the future. Thus, all the works in the Whitney show stand on equal footing, nostalgia-free, without any hint of obsolescence (the sad underlying reality of many a retrospective). They are all present.
With Weiner’s work in the current spotlight, it is suddenly more possible to consider it in the canonical sense, along with other über-iconic Americans like Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe or Jasper Johns. The Whitney show is a major event in the history of American art. Whatever Weiner is—sole proprietor, painter, filmmaker, pornographer, ramblin’ man (note, Woody Guthrie started out as a sign painter), poet, workingman, guru, sculptor, designer, font-smith, philosopher—it truly appears to be high times for an artist who has always done it for a whole lot more than just the money, or the show.
Jeremy Sigler is a poet, critic and teacher living in Brooklyn, New York. His long-awaited analysis of the poetry of Carl Andre is forthcoming from Sternberg Press.